Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Power of Work's Connections in Billy Elliot

While in London for the Voice and Value conference (see The Value of Voice entry), we saw the musical Billy Elliot. I might be biased because my family tree includes miners from County Durham, and because of my interest in labor unions, but anyone who does not believe that work has deep connections with family and community should see this musical. I defy them to not be moved by the raw power with which Billy Elliot exposes the impact of the 1984-85 miners' strike on the home life of Billy, his Dad, and his brother, and illustrates the interconnectedness of each family with the entire community. Sometimes this involves solidarity, other times sharp conflict. But in all cases, the relationships are very powerful, and are rooted in class and the nature of work.

Oh once I was a young man
Looked over vales and hills
Saw myself a future
of riches and of thrills
But on me fifteenth birthday
I paid my union dues
And they sent me deep into the ground
Oh the winter wind can blow me colder
Oh the summer's heat can parch me dry
But I'll not leave here for a fortune
I shall never leave here till I die
from: Deep Into the Ground

My wife observed how much rage there is in the musical. This is not an emotion that we commonly associate with work, except in particularly deviant cases of workplace violence. But I think this reinforces how important work is for the families and community in Billy Elliot. The strike does not simply pose a threat to their immediate economic welfare. Rather, it represents a fundamental threat to the community's entire way of life. So the ramifications are deep, and the resulting emotions are quite intense.

And though our hands are bruised and bleeding
And our lungs are full with dust
And our hearts are near to breaking
We will never forgo the trust
We will fight through pain and hunger
Every arrow, every knife.
And we will never give the hope up
Of a proud and honest life
from: The Stars Look Down

In this way, the rage of Billy Elliot is a very vivid reminder of the tremendous importance of work not just for individuals workers, but for their families and communities.

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